Appetite for fish spells disaster for sea life

Click to follow
The Independent Online

For millennia Europeans have harvested the oceans with little thought to the future, but over-fishing, illegal catches, wasteful methods and destructive techniques are turning once plentiful waters into barren seas.

While seafood is still a popular and healthy part of the European diet, increasing demand is driving many marine species to the edge of extinction and traditional fish dishes that were once a cheap and common source of nourishment have been declared a recipe for disaster.

A new report by the WWF has found that many of the fishing practices employed to satisfy the public's appetite are having an unacceptable effect on the marine environment. In some cases as much as 80 per cent of catches are thrown over board by fishermen for being too small or not valuable enough. The result is that many millions of fish are killed every year for nothing and several once popular species are in danger.

James Woolford of the WWF's European fisheries campaign said: "Not everything caught in a net makes it to the dinner table. The trail of destruction behind industrialised fishing must be stopped or our children will be left with a barren ocean."

European fisheries account for around 16 per cent of global catches and the industry is reliant - directly and indirectly - on the oceans for thousands of jobs. But those same fisheries are in now in crisis as most commercial fish stocks from the North Sea to the North-east Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean are just 10 per cent of what they were 30 years ago. Throughout the continent common dishes could, at best, become rare luxuries or, at worst, lost from the menu completely. Traditional favourites at risk include cod, tuna, plaice, sole, swordfish, and lobster.

"We've got too many boats chasing too few fish," said Mr Woolford, who claimed that popular demand encourages illegal fishing and unsustainable fishing practices.

"What we need is for consumers to vote with their wallets and to go and ask their local restaurant and their local supermarket for fish certified by the Marine Stewardship Council."

In an attempt to make the public aware of what is happening the WWF has issued an urgent warning to governments to toughen up fisheries management and support Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification. It is also urging European consumers to buy fish from only well-managed fisheries, identified with the MSC product label to help protect the environment.

The MSC is an independent, global, non-profit organisation set up to find a solution to the problem of overfishing. The council certifies individual fisheries according to the MSC standard and is the only internationally recognised set of environmental principles for assessing well-managed and sustainable fisheries.

"Although there are serious problems within Europe's fisheries, some responsible fishermen are working hard to secure a future for our favourite fish dishes and the fishing industry," said Dr Tom Pickerell, WWF Fisheries Policy Officer. "Lots of UK fishermen are striving to ach-ieve Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) accreditation that proves their practices are sustainable.

"Consumers have a vital role to play in securing a future for our fish and fishing industry by choosing MSC certified fish when they go shopping and asking why it is not available if they do not see it on the counter".

According to WWF there is no reason why consumers cannot stick to sustainable species as there are now more than 400 MSC-labelled products available in stores worldwide.

"Over-fishing does more than deplete valuable fish populations and put livelihoods at risk," claims the WWF report.

"Fishing gear, particularly bottom trawls, can be extremely damaging to fragile marine habitats. Vast quantities of unwanted juvenile fish and other marine life are hauled up by unselective nets and hooks, only to be thrown away dead or dying.

"This destruction and waste threatens endangered marine species, hampers the recovery of depleted fish populations, and reverberates throughout entire marine ecosystems."

The report concludes: "Every European who buys fish - whether as a consumer, chef, retailer, processor or restaurateur - has a huge role to play in securing the future of Europe's fish dishes and its fishing industry."

Here's the catch: the dishes that damage stocks

Fish & Chips

Fish and chips was the original fast food but the speed at which the seas are being plundered means Atlantic cod could be a dish of the past within 15 years. Global catches have dropped by around 70 per cent in the last 30 years. Continued overfishing in the North Sea, Irish Sea, west of Scotland, the Eastern Baltic Sea and the Skagerrak has reduced the number of breeding cod far below sustainable levels. Trawling for cod also harms other species such as harbour porpoises and seabirds.


Atlantic Bluefin tuna is now one of the most highly prized fish as demand for the fish in sushi and sashimi dishes soars. It is estimated that nearly one third of all catches come from illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, mostly by EU fleets.

The WWF says stocks of Atlantic Bluefin tuna are now dangerously overfished. The fish are caught using long-lines and the indiscriminate use of hooks means turtles, sharks, sea-birds and other animals are killed.

Plaice and Sole

Between 50 and 80 per cent of plaice caught are dumped dead over board because they are either too small to sell or less valuable than other species in the catch. Both fish live on the ocean floor and it is estimated that 180,000 tons of invertebrates, such as sea urchins, hermit crabs, razor shells, and starfish, are discarded by North Sea trawlers every year. The WWF says plaice and sole fishing is Europe's most wasteful.

Swordfish Steak

Europeans have discovered a taste for the fish and fleets from Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece, UK, Malta, France, Albania and Ireland are all trying to meet the growing demand. Because the vast majority of swordfish are caught using long-lines, which can be several kilometres long and contain thousands of hooks, many other species are affected. Some boats catch more than three tons of shark for every ton of swordfish.


In the case of scampi, also known as langoustine and Norway lobster, bottom trawling for this delicacy is having a devastating effect. Vast areas of the Irish Sea and North Sea are intensively trawled three or four times year leaving the surviving sea-floor species little time to recover. campaigners have described bottom trawling as the most destructive of all fishing practices


West African shrimp, squid and fish from Mauritania to North Angola are now common ingredients in popular dishes such as paella. Since 1979 the EU has paid millions of euros to various African countries for the right to fish in their waters but most of the agreements do not contain any maximum quotas and the foreign fleets are often able to work unsupervised.

According to WWF the fish resources of the North-west African coast are now as depleted as those of the North Atlantic. For many West African countries fish is a vital food source and the collapse of the native fishing industry could prove an economic and social disaster.